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Bleak Icelandic comedy ‘Under the Tree’ finds there’s no place like home for savagery

Bleak Icelandic comedy ‘Under the Tree’ finds there’s no place like home for savagery
Selma Björnsdóttir in the movie "Under the Tree." (Magnolia Pictures)

The milk of human kindness does not flow through “Under the Tree,” a blacker than black comedy that is so savage you often don’t know whether to shudder or laugh. And it all starts with a tree.

Good fences may make for good neighbors, but old and beautiful trees have the opposite effect. At least that’s the way it often is in Iceland.

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According to notes from director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, who co-wrote with Huldar Breidfjord, trees are not all that common in Iceland. Neither, as it turns out, is sunshine, and should one person’s tree get in the way of another person’s bright light, a feud from hell could well be the result.

“Under the Tree” does not start with those neighbors and a tree, however, it begins in an apartment where wife Agnes (Lara Johanna Jonsdottir) discovers husband Atli (Steinbor Hroar Steinporsson) watching porn.

And not just any porn. The footage in question features Atli having sex with one of Agnes’ friends. Atli insists it’s not what it seems, but Agnes, clutching their 4-year-old daughter, promptly kicks him out.

Having nowhere else to go, Atli shows up at the suburban house of his parents Inga (Edda Bjorgvinsdottir) and Baldvin (Sigurour Sigurjonsson), the proud owners of that venerable tree.

Living next door are Eybjorg (Selma Bjornsdottir) and Konrad (Porsteinn Bachmann), a couple looking for a little more sunshine. Inga’s intemperate, unyielding response: “No one is touching that tree.”

“Under the Tree” goes back and forth between Atli’s dispute with his wife and his parents’ dispute with their neighbors. It seems that everyone in Iceland, if this film is any indication, is capable of holding grudges until they turn blue.

Atli, as it turns out, does not help his cause by being feckless and self-absorbed, a natural born screw-up trapped in complications he never imagined.

When wife Agnes changes the locks on him, he seeks out their daughter in the local pre-school, triggering a confrontation that soon spirals out of control.

A similar dynamic is taking place at his parents’ house, complicated by two factors, starting with Inga’s resentment toward the ostentatiously healthy Eybjorg, whom she habitually refers to as “that cycling bitch.”

Also a problem is the fate of Atli’s brother, disappeared for a year and presumed a suicide by everyone but Inga, who insists he is about to return.

The back and forth, tit-for-tat actions and reactions between these two couples living side by side starts badly and promptly deteriorates. This is one film where thinking things couldn’t get any worse never turns out to be an accurate reading of the situation.

Screenwriters Sigurdsson and Breidfjord are fiendishly good at imagining the complimentary ways things spiral out of control, and the actors are expert at making us believe in what the director accurately calls “a war film where home is the battlefield.”

On another level, however, with situations so grotesque it is often an effort to laugh, “Under the Tree” is one of those films that may be more involving to write and read about than to actually see.

It is also a reminder of what people are talking about when they tell you, as they will, that Icelanders have the bleakest of all the bleak Scandinavian senses of humor.

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When one of the film’s characters asks, as anyone would, “has everyone lost their minds?,” the answer at least as far as the audience is concerned, is never in doubt.

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“Under the Tree”

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles.

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